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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie / Photo: © Wani Olatunde

Night of Ideas Comes to DC

Born in Paris in 2016, the Night of Ideas is where art, pop culture, science and politics collide. In 2018, it took place in more than 100 cities worldwide, and the first DC iteration recently took place on January 31.

Elise Girard, Deputy Press Counselor for the Embassy of France, says the Night of Ideas strives for “a mix of art and debate – not only political, but social issues.” At last week’s event, these issues were both explicit in the discussion – and implicit in the circumstances.

The Night of Ideas was originally slated to be at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. However, as French Ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud put it, “in DC there are some uncertainties, and one of them is called the [U.S. government ] shutdown.”

Organizers had a choice: cancel or move. Fortunately for DC Francophiles, the Night of Ideas simply moved to the Embassy of France. Lit up in yellow, pink, green and blue, the embassy shone like a beacon as visitors streamed in to begin the experience.

Attendees were immediately greeted by Providence, Rhode Island artist Kelli Rae Adams’ installation Mischief in the Boneyard. A winding trail of ceramic dominoes, the piece was inherently nerve-racking: if toppled, the dominoes could break. And when they did, the clatter echoed through the entrance hall. The three classic “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys were etched on one side of each domino – perhaps a metaphor for our time.

In fact, the evening carried the theme of “Facing our Time” – but the unspoken words might have been to “re-evaluate your relationship with Instagram, eh?”

The keynote speaker was celebrated writer and thought leader Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, who has one of the most-watched TED Talks of all time and wrote the acclaimed books We Should All be Feminists and Half of a Yellow Sun. At the Night of Ideas, she spoke beautifully about two concepts that are unlikely bedfellows: empathy and critical thinking. Emotion and rational thought are intertwined, she argued: “if we can think clearly, we can truly see other human beings.”

She also reflected on the modern world, the pull of social media, and its impact on how we think: “I have always wanted to live a life of the mind, of imagination, [but] I struggle to be absorbed.” Ultimately, she said, time to slow down, reflect, and savor our moments shouldn’t be a luxury, but a right.

Presenter Franklin Foer had a similar premise to his talk, “The Existential Threat of Big Tech.” He started with poet Mary Oliver’s famous quote: “attention is the beginning of devotion.” But according to Foer, the big tech companies and social media platforms – Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple – “invasively opened us up and mined us…hijacked the most precious thing we have.”

How to combat this hijacking of the human psyche? Books. As Foer put it, “reading is a place where we can connect to our humanity.” Ultimately, Foer said that the power to choose where to spend our time is ours – but we have to protect that time vigilantly.

But these ideas around modernity and the digitization of our lives were only one facet of a night filled with art, performance, music and debate. French performance artists Les Souffleurs Commandos Poétiques enlisted audience members in a living art installation, holding umbrellas over participants and whispering into their ears through long black tubes, creating almost a kind of architecture in the blue light that suffused the event space.

The options for talks to attend were almost overwhelming, with four to five options every hour, spanning a multitude of issues from art appreciation to gender equality to climate change to incarceration. But I’d say my favorite part of the Night of Ideas wasn’t a talk, but a performance: Marching Band Baltimore Project’s kickoff performance at the start of the night both set the tone and stole the show.

The drums reverberated throughout the embassy, the dancers in spangled costumes twirled and snapped at the waist, and everyone in the crowd was utterly rapt. There was no doubt in my mind that the time and attention I gave them was truly well-spent.

For more information on the Night of Ideas, click here